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Guest blog Bart van Heesbeen: Prevailing beliefs about nutrition in equestrian sport

In my previous article for HELTIE horse® I wrote about natural nutrition in sport. In this follow-up, I would like to discuss prevailing beliefs in the equestrian world and whether they are correct. In equestrian sport, many different beliefs still often prevail in the field of nutrition. ‘It needs a lot of energy’ or ‘he gets fatter from pellets.’ Maybe you can think of more. The great thing for me is that I can understand these beliefs very well, as I come from the world of sport myself. Therefore, I want to start with my own belief; ‘Everyone always does it out of a good intention.’ Within his/her knowledge, everyone wants the best for his/her horse. As long as we have this conviction, we can interact in a respectful way.

To get good context, we will need to understand where certain beliefs come from. In the past, horses were used to work the land. In principle, rich amounts of grain were then fed. For this, oats were mainly used and sometimes barley. These are originally the two grains that are best to digest for the horse. The horses then had to work all day in the fields, which naturally had a huge impact. Concentrated feed was needed to keep up. Because of the work, the negative influences of grains were also less applicable back then. Think for yourself, if you eat a lot of carbohydrates and you have to work physically hard all day, it doesn’t affect you. If you sit all day working behind a screen, it’s a different story.

The era of pellets

Later, hard feed was developed, in which grains and other products were pressed into a pellet. The belief of many older people is that a horse should be fed pellets, but is this really the case? To put all pellets under one heading is, in my opinion, unfair. After all, each pellet has a different composition and there are different ways of pressing. If we are talking about conventional hard feed that often contains a lot of grains (especially wheat), soy, corn and all kinds of residual products, I don’t think a horse should be fed those pellets. Should we ourselves actually be fed processed food? In my view, the reason to feed a pellet should be to supplement vitamins, minerals and trace elements. In an ideal world, this would not even be necessary, the soil would already have these, so therefore the grassland and other vegetation as well. Ultimately, these minerals are then also back in the roughage. Feeding a balancer and other energy sources separately allows you to dose the products separately. So you can adjust for each horse separately.

Grazing, is it achievable?

Then we come to the point via pasture: grazing. Is this necessary or how do we deal with it? Let’s start by saying that in nature, a horse has all kinds of vegetation. We may wonder if we can fully mimic that. A paddock paradise is of course a fantastic concept, which is very close to the natural need. Sometimes you hear every day on the pasture, but is this realisable? Is this good for soil and horse? With the relatively limited space our horses have to walk on, can we provide good pasture?

As you can see, these are mostly questions and there is no single answer in this one. The only thing we can state up front is that there are certain needs in horses, nutritionally, socially, free exercise and, above all, relaxation. These needs, we cannot ignore and if we do not meet them, it will disrupt your horse’s system in the long run. The problem is often, we don’t see these effects in the short term. Everything starts with small symptoms of an imbalance, which eventually gets bigger and bigger. Horses start by whispering, but eventually they start screaming. Once completely out of balance, it does take a while, with the right steps, to restore that balance.

I often relate it to people, if you have ever changed eating patterns for progress, only then do you notice how many signals the body has given you. In your daily life, you just get up and go back to bed at night, you often don’t realise then how you, really feel. ‘I’m just tired a lot, yes that’s how I am.’ Those are things I sometimes hear. When they then take some steps to change things, they only realise what a negative impact it had. For example, if you then go to a fast-food restaurant again, you only feel what a negative effect that has on your constitution. Whereas before you thought this was ‘normal’.

This is ultimately the same with your horse, what we judge as the ‘normal’, is it really that normal?

Needs of a sport horse

If we relate this to sport horses, do they have different needs as paddock paradise horses? Or are they ultimately just the same animals? The hormone balance of a sport horse needs to be in order, the stress axis also needs to be in order as well as the thyroid axis. If these are dysregulated, you will also experience problems in sport. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule and there are also horses that can jump well or run a good test with a dysregulated axis. But is this ideal? And perhaps more importantly; can we continue to do this, in terms of horse welfare? The cause is not only nutrition, stress from housing, training, but also not having social contact can disrupt the axles. A short deregulation is not so bad, as long as it does not become structural. Nutritionally, horses then start using a number of substances, which eventually fall into deficit, which in turn leads to stress at the cellular level. As you hear, you get into a vicious circle here, which is difficult to get out of.

Forage vs hay

The last belief I would like to address is the belief that sport horses are better off having haylage/silage because they have to work hard. In that case, we may ask ourselves a few things. Does a sport horse really work hard and walk as much as he walked in the wild? Another interesting question is: Where in nature did fermented food find its way? As far as I have been able to look back, they have never found it. Therefore, this does not suit the horse’s digestive system, the lactic acid bacteria that enter this way eventually cause acidification of the gut environment. Acidification is one of the things you want to prevent at all times. This deregulation ultimately costs energy. Initially, a horse will be a bit quicker on packed hay, but in the long run this will have a negative effect. However, it is important if you feed unpacked hay that you have hay that contains enough protein and is not too high in sugar. A horse that works hard will get along better with a reasonably high sugar diet than a horse that only has its own free exercise.

In this piece I have raised many questions, I would like to invite you to think about these questions and respond. There is no black and white in this in my opinion. Make your own choices and remember, everyone is doing it from their own best intentions! Let’s build bridges!

Want to know more about this topic or get in touch with Bart van Heesbeen? Then visit the Kwalituur paardenvoeding website.

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